Policy

A Different Kind of Washington Gridlock

With Metro warning of subway service shutdowns, lawmakers urge full funding of transit system

The D.C. Metro board director said some of the transit system's lines could be shut down for up to six months to deal with mechanical and other problems. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Bruce Baltas, like thousands of others in the Washington area, worked from home on March 16 when Metro's subway system shut down for more than a day due to emergency safety inspections.  

But telecommuting is not a long-term solution if Metro officials follow through on their warning to possibly take down entire lines for months at a time to perform big-ticket maintenance they say must be done and cannot be completed on the current stop-and-start schedule.  

“It seems a little ridiculous,” Baltas said while waiting for an Orange Line train at the Capitol South station on Thursday. His alternatives would be to commute by car – or ride in on his motorcycle from Alexandria, Va.  

Metro Board Director Jack Evans suggested on Wednesday that the nation's second-biggest subway system's maintenance was in such bad shape that officials could take drastic action to address long-standing problems.  

Other Metro riders balked at the idea of such a major disruption to their daily commutes, calling it “impossible” and “infeasible.” They also braced for increased traffic in the area and trains more crowded than usual. Metrorail handles some 700,000 commuters daily.  

“How are people supposed to get to work?” one woman asked before hopping onto a Blue Line train at Federal Center SW.  

Evans singled out the Blue Line, but he suggested any of Metro’s six rail lines could qualify for service disruptions. The Red Line would be the least likely candidate because of recent repairs.  

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld confirmed Wednesday he was considering lengthy shutdowns. But a day later, he sought to dial things back in response to public outrage.  

Wiedefeld, who took over in November, issued a statement assuring riders of “ample notice” of any future service changes and that “no decisions have been made.” He added a long-range maintenance plan for the rail system is expected in four to six weeks.  

Evans also made a plea for $1 billion in additional funding for Metro, which would more than double what it has allocated for infrastructure costs in its fiscal 2017 budget to support Metrobus, Metrorail and MetroAccess services.  

Some of Metro’s budget comes from federal coffers. Evans’ startling warning came on the same day Senate Democrats announced a push to keep federal funding for the system at the same level as in past years.  

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland was joined by Virginia's Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in outlining a plea for those controlling the purse in the Senate to provide $150 million in fiscal 2017 for Metro. The plea came in a letter from the Democrats written on March 18 that was made public Wednesday.  

Congress has appropriated $150 million to the agency every year since 2009, according to congressional staff, but last year that funding came under threat amid budget uncertainty and a discretionary spending crunch.  

Neither House nor Senate Appropriations Committee members appear to be pondering cuts to Metro, and with the panel's top Democrat in the Senate, Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, from a state served heavily by the transit system, it seems unlikely that cuts are ahead.  

Barbara Comstock, R-Va., who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement that she was pleased Wiedefeld “realizes the need for dramatic cultural changes at Metro” that could also include shake-ups in top management.  

“If General Manager Wiedefeld feels that he cannot run certain Metro lines safely, then he must take the appropriate steps to bring those lines to the proper safety level,” Comstock’s said.  

Some commuters in Washington said the potential for a long shutdown could at least benefit people for years to come instead of dealing with what seem like daily disruptions.  

Jerry Godwin takes the Red Line and Blue or Orange Lines to get to his government job from his home in Maryland. He may have to consider walking from a station further away if certain lines are idled.  

Godwin said given Metro’s lagging infrastructure, either drastic measures must be taken now or commuters will continue to endure service problems.  

“It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Godwin said.  

Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report. Contact Rahman at remarahman@cqrollcall.com or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.